Dianna Agron on embracing indies after "Glee": "When you ask for something, life can give it to you"

The actor discusses her latest films "Acidman" and "Clock," advice to young actors and an update on her singing

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 18, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Dianna Agron (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Dianna Agron (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

"I just want to keep it moving," Dianna Agron said. "I don't want to feel as if I'm sitting in one character too often. It has to feel fresh."

Over the past several years, the actor, best known for her iconic role as Quinn Fabray on "Glee," has been quietly carving out an impressive body of work in indie dramas like "As They Made Us" and "Shiva Baby." Now, in her new film "Acidman," she plays a woman seeking to reconnect with the father she hasn't seen in several years (played by Thomas Haden Church) — and maybe even with something deeper in the universe.

Agron, who was a teenager when her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, said on "Salon Talks" that "given my long-standing history with my father and his personal health, I thought that that might be something I would be willing to incorporate into my filmic storytelling." Agron also discussed how she's found her groove in the world of independent films, her timely new horror movie "Clock" and why she has no interest in locking down a superhero franchise.

Watch the "Salon Talks" episode with Dianna Agron here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about why she was destined to be on a musical show like "Glee" and how independent films have led to beautiful discoveries for her as an actor.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How would you describe "Acidman"?

My character Maggie shows up on her dad's doorstep and it's been 10 years. She's hoping for reconnection, which Thomas [Haden Church], who's playing Lloyd, doesn't expect, so things aren't as smooth as could be as one could imagine. It's mostly a two-hander about a father and a daughter trying to find a way to reestablish their relationship having not known each other, really, for the last 10 years. Both of them are quite different than the last time that they remember each other, trying to find a way to re-understand each other.

Like in another movie of yours, "As They Made Us," this is a story that is about a father and a daughter and issues of communication, mortality, physical health and mental health. These are things that are really personal for you. What did you draw on from your own life and your own relationship with your family?

Can you imagine I filmed these movies back to back? The timing was funny, as life can be. I remember the beginning of the pandemic, slowing down, thinking about worlds and characters that I hadn't explored yet. Given my long-standing history with my father and his personal health, I thought that that might be something I would be willing to incorporate into my filmic storytelling. Then Alex [Lehmann]'s film comes my way, and Mayim [Bialik]'s film comes my way, and it just so happens that we're going to be filming both of those, truly, back to back. I think I had five or six days in between them. So when you ask for something, life can give it to you, and then you should be ready. 

"The only thing I was certain of when I moved to Los Angeles was that I wanted to find a musical."

I was so happy to take on the challenge, especially with this film. I loved Alex's work. I loved "Blue Jay." I loved "Paddleton," and I really was so excited to understand what we would be playing with because we were going to be incorporating so much improvisation.

When he brought the script to me, he had tailored this character, Maggie [to me]. Originally it was a father-son piece, and that's how he had been approaching it for quite some time. At the point of taking it to me, he had switched. We discussed what her motivations were. There was a reveal in the movie that we had designed together because it just felt right that that might be a motivator to encourage her to up this process of trying to establish a reconnection to her father. And we just worked it. 

Then we loved the idea of Thomas Haden Church as Lloyd as the father, and both wrote him these love letters, and he said yes. He really responded. The three of us spent months talking to each other on the phone and preparing for this opportunity. Once we got to Oregon, we really hit the ground running. I think we shot in 17 days. 

This does become a personal place, from the time you were 15, with your own dad's health.

Yes. My father, unfortunately, has been sick. I've known many different versions of him because his sickness has progressed, so I very much can relate to showing up on a doorstep and not being completely familiar with the person that's in front of me. Sometimes that shift can happen in months, and sometimes it can happen in years. In this case, with Maggie and Lloyd, it's because they haven't seen each other in 10 years. These were seeds that I pulled into this project, but Maggie and Lloyd's disconnection is so different than anything I've ever experienced in my own life. And that was really, really fun to build with both Alex and Thomas.

You also are a person who comes from the world of ensembles. This is, you said, a two-hander, how did you develop this quiet, often unspoken, intimacy between the two of you?

With Alex's direction and guidance, it was a balancing act of, "Who has more of the upper hand in this moment? Who is being more vulnerable? How are each character reacting, scene to scene, and how does that move their story forward?" With her, there were moments where I felt that she was her age, which was my age, and there were moments where she just felt like a little girl. She felt like an 8-year-old version of herself, just wanting so badly to have that embrace, or hear the things she's been waiting to hear. I think likewise for Lloyd. 

I think that when two people are at odds, ultimately, both of them are wishing and wanting there's a list of things that could activate them. It's a delicate situation because ultimately, you can only control what you have to share and offer somebody. You can't control the other person. That was very fun to explore those moments and those scenes.

"I feel very lucky to work with people who really understand the choices that I make."

Also, Lloyd never really wanted her to touch him. There wasn't a physical comfort between the two. That was something so interesting, because I think oftentimes people can use that as a tool to bring somebody in. But there's quite a bit of space between us for a large portion of the opening bit of the film. Slowly, over time, you see us getting closer and closer together. There are moments where one of us leans in, but then it's uncomfortable and you lean out.

With all of those things, it was such an interesting dynamic with Thomas and with Alex. I loved every day of filming. Every day had its own new surprises and challenges, and that's what happens when you build a movie where you're shooting so fast and you have very limited time.

You came off "Glee," the biggest television show in the world, and it wasn't just a television show. It was tours, it was music, it was everything. Now, you found a groove in this independent film world. What is it about that speaks to you at this point in your life?

It was something that allowed for many different characters. Between Maggie Betts' "Novitiate," or Emma Seligman's "Shiva Baby," Mayim [Bialik]'s "As They Made Us," Alex's "Acidman," the doors were open in those capacities and they were a world I wanted to play in.

Last year, I returned to TV for the first time, and there's a miniseries that's going to be coming out on Netflix. That was such an interesting world because that almost felt like indie filmmaking again. It's really about surrounding yourself with people who are willing to take chances. That happens a lot on indie films because the resources are more limited, but also what you discover can be really beautiful and not something that was found on the page. This return to TV, I was like, "Ah, this is so fun to explore characters for a greater length of time. We have six episodes to understand where this person started, where they're going, flashbacks." Such a big world. That was fun as well.

I think project to project, I just have to connect with the people involved and the character. I just want to keep it moving. I don't want to feel as if I'm sitting in one character too often. It has to feel fresh.

In an industry where it feels like everybody is chasing that next superhero franchise, it is a unique career strategy. To make that kind of conscious choice, have you had pushback? Have you had people say like, "You need to get yourself in a superhero suit now, Dianna"?

Nobody has said that. They don't want me. That universe does not want me. I feel very lucky to work with people who really understand the choices that I make and who help nurture those worlds. 

The only thing I was certain of when I moved to Los Angeles was that I wanted to find a musical. That was it. I grew up on musicals; that was the goal. The goal happened, wildly, because so many people had teased me and said, "Then why didn't you move to New York?" Then past "Glee," it's just all a delightful surprise, and it all feels very authentic to me. 

I just feel so grateful to work with incredible filmmakers who are my friends and this network of people around me that I admire and appreciate. I am constantly surprised by what ends up coming. This year has been a little bit of a slower start, which has allowed me to dream and think about creation and what's coming, and bring some of that energy in and start putting some of that into motion as far as seeding things. 

"Past 'Glee,' it's just all a delightful surprise."

When I was working opposite some of the young people in this new show, they were asking me a lot of questions that was causing a lot of reflection, because they were completely new to it. Some of them were like, "You've been doing this for how long? You're how old?" I was like, "You're 13. That's so cool." Watching it from their eyes, their sense of discovery — I still have that. I get on set and I want to be there every moment. I want to watch it all unfold. I don't want to be in another room. I don't want to be in a trailer. I want to be watching every piece of it made. Because that's the joy.

When you're talking to these 13-year-olds, what advice do you give?

It's funny to me because I started after high school. I'm watching these young people, and they're doing something at an age when I didn't even think I could achieve that. It might have been a seed of a dream, but it really wasn't until right as I was about to graduate high school that I thought, "You know what? Going to go for it. Let's see."

For them, so much of it was that they wanted to know if I felt that they were free in these moments, or if there was anything that I could help them, as far as acting tips, things like that. We'd do little exercises, body movements, vocal kind of strategies, warm up, things like that. But they were so free. That was the beauty of the thing. They had gone through a little bit of a training camp in Mexico City and they just found it really easily. That was an indication that they should have been there doing that. That was their summer breaks. They went right back to school, and they were kind of bummed about it because they had such a good time. I think you should only be doing this if you're having fun and you're feeling free, because then you're up for discovery.

Speaking of things that you love that are fun, you have done residencies at the Carlyle. Where are you now in your music?

"I don't want to feel as if I'm sitting in one character too often. It has to feel fresh."

It's not something that's being nurtured at this very moment, other than singing in the shower and singing at my piano. This very time last year, we were back in the Carlyle, which was amazing to be in that room again. It had been closed for two years. It was the first month it was back. Just to be on that stage again and be with our band was so fun. Audience members felt very extra joyful to be there, because it had been such a long time coming. Now, there's always a want and a desire to bring that into filming life and things like that, but nothing to talk about at this very moment.

I like the sly way you say that.

We'll talk in a year.

You have another project coming out called "Clock," which also deals with these issues of the body and relationships and parenthood. Tell me about that.

"Clock" was just such a fun and, I felt, important movie to get behind. Alexis Jacknow wrote this movie that talks about a woman whose personal world feels so flawed because she does not feel that she wants to have a child. Her family and her social circles have all made her feel that something is wrong with her. She goes on a mission to see if her biological clock is broken, and things go awry. It's a psychological thriller. It comes out on Hulu.

I was just so interesting to make this film with so many female department heads and Alexis, and be filming something about an issue that is so personal — whether one wants to have children, how they do it, when they do it.

So many people have opinions about your personal decisions in this way, and your body, which is so specific to women. It's really comforting to understand that there are so many people who also believe that it should be a choice and that you, as a person, should be allowed to make decisions without the chorus of people around them. But it's really personal, and this film is a very personal story from Alexis. It'll be cool to see that film out in the world and see what conversations that film leads to.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Acidman Clock Dianna Agron Glee Movies Salon Talks